CategoryReynolds Alastair

Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (2010)

It’s more-or-less exactly a year since I read an Alastair Reynolds novel for the first time, and now here I am, looking at his latest book. Once again, I had a great time reading him – though I can’t shake the feeling I like the idea of Terminal World (and here I’m referring to the underlying structure of the story, rather than the novel’s setting, which is a fine creation) more than I like how that idea plays out in actuality.

At some point in the future, after even the word ‘science’ has been forgotten by many, there is Spearpoint, a giant vertical city divided into ‘zones’, each of which, by some quirk of reality, has a limit to the technology that will function within its boundaries; the further up you go, the more advanced is the technology that becomes feasible. Passing through a zone boundary places great strain on a human body, and ‘antizonal’ drugs are needed for survival (though they’re not a panacea; they just mean you don’t die as quickly).

In the zone of Neon Heights (whose level of technology is equivalent to that of a couple of decades or so before our time), an angel (highly advanced human, that is) falls from the levels above, and is taken to the district pathologist, Quillon. This apparent accident has been engineered just to get a message to Quillon; the pathologist is himself an angel, who was modified to see if the human zones could be infiltrated – and now the angels are coming after him.

In short order, Quillon is given a female bodyguard/courier, Meroka; covertly escorted from Spearpoint; and sets off across the lawless face of Earth to the safety of another human settlement. Capture, intrigue, rescue and discovery all ensue.

The thing that struck me first of all about Terminal World was that Reynolds is a great writer of pace; especially at the beginning, he keeps the plot moving with merciless efficiency. Unfortunately, the pace flags a bit towards the middle, though it does crank up again towards the end. I also found the characterisation rather sketchy (Meroka, for example, never seemed to me to become much more than a ‘tough female bodyguard’, and Quillon felt too much like someone the story happens to, rather than a fully rounded character).

But… Reynolds does something particularly interesting in this novel, which is to take a world with a puzzle at its centre (i.e. what happened to create the zones?) and make that puzzle a tangent to the main story. In other words, this isn’t a straightforward tale of Uncovering the Secret of the World – but, you know, that’s not to say it doesn’t happen… As I said at the beginning, I like the idea of this technique, but I’m not sure how well the mix actually works; in a way, it seems to work against the forward momentum of the story. Still, despite these reservations, I enjoyed Terminal World; it’s a good read.

Link
Alastair Reynolds’s website

Clarke Award: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008)

My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds (I’ll be saying that a lot in the course of these Clarke Award posts, as I haven’t read any novels by four of the other authors on the shortlist, and the sixth author I read such a long time ago that I don’t really remember my opinion of the book), and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision.

House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ‘shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation).

We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ‘strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of Gentian Line destroyed. Accompanied by Hesperus, one of the sentient Machine People as their companion, Purslane and Campion meet up with the survivors; but they’ll discover that a dark secret lies behind the ambush; and their understanding of the universe — and themselves — is about to change.

The novel is told in the first person, with Campion and Purslane narrating alternate chapters; there is also a recurring plot strand dealing with the early life of Abigail Gentian (which could be narrated by either clone, as all Abigail’s shatterlings have memories of her life). The latter does not seem to add much to the story, beyond setting the scene and introducing some apparatus that will reappear at the end; but, since these sections are quite short, it didn’t really bother me. More problematic is that Purslane’s and Campion’s narrative voices can’t be told apart, which weakens the characterisation and makes it hard to keep track of whose chapter is whose (I suppose this could be explained by the two characters’ being versions of the same person, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty).

Although it’s disappointing that, in effect, the novel has one narrative voice, that voice is not unengaging. I particularly liked some of Reynolds’ imagery, such as this example from near the beginning: ‘…an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons’.

But it’s not the prose that’s the star attraction of House of Suns — it’s the constant flood of imagination. Reynolds’ remarkably busy universe includes not only the exotic humans and the machine intelligences, but also such phenomena as the Vigilance, a vast living library, and the Spirit of the Air, a cloud-shaped higher intelligence who was once a man (both of these latter are beautifully described). Ideas and revelations come thick and fast, the pace builds as the end approaches — and, despite the occasional sense of things being pulled out of a hat (as if to say, ‘ta-dah!’), the author controls it all very well.

However, this approach is not without its problems. In particular, Reynolds’ story raises serious questions about issues like torture and guilt; but I’m not sure that these are explored in all the depth they should have been — indeed, I’m not sure there’s time for Reynolds to do so, given the structure he uses: the plot gets in the way to an extent. But, all in all, House of Suns is a very enjoyable piece of space opera, and surely not the last Alastair Reynolds novel I’ll be reading.

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